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FRANCESINHAS AND MUCH MORE

Rajen Bali

“….My head was in the clouds, My heart went crazy too, And I madly said, I love you.” Yes, this is my song and I am singing it to the city of Porto. So what if I just can’t sing. So what if the words are a part of the song “April in Portugal,” and it is only March. And so what if I have been ‘singing’ ‘April in Portugal’ quite a lot in the recent times. But I am still stuck on/in Portugal and want to share some more of this beautiful country with you. Will I succeed in making some of you to go and enjoy April-in-Portugal? Who knows? Maybe.

Porto. A Wise One says: “People get bored everywhere but here. There is always somewhere to be, something to do and someone to see.”

So, shall we start with a combination of Someone-to-see and Something-to-do? The “Someone” part is sheer literary license…. The Someone-to-see is “Francesinha.” Though it sounds like an attractive ‘She’, it is just an ‘It’.  Francesinha – Little Frenchie - is the name given to a special sandwich from Porto. It has been called “Porto’s heart attack on a plate,” but it is also featured in the lists of “10 Best Sandwiches in the World.” There are many variations in its ingredients which may include five or more meats including ham, roast pork, linguica (spicy, smoked Portuguese sausage), other kinds of sausage, steak, mortadella or other kinds of cheese, and much more. This ‘brick is covered with melted cheese, often has an egg on top, and it floats in a sauce. Everyone has their own sauce, with the recipe being a closely guarded secret. Though it is available in other places in Portugal also, Francesinha is basically a very Porto-thing.

Just as there are many variations in Francesinha’s looks – the size generally remains huge – and the house-sauce, there are various stories of its origin too. Some think that its origins are in the 19th century Peninsular War when Napoleonic troops used to eat toasts in which they put in various kinds of meats and lot of cheese. But most attribute its origin to Daniel da Silva who returned to Porto in the 1960s after working in France and Belgium. He wanted to give a Portuguese twist to the French Croque Monsieur and invented the Francesinha, while working at Restaurant a Regaleira, the place which is acknowledged as the cradle of this dish. Traditionally, Porto cuisine tends to be substantial and has intense, hot flavors. A bit droll, but it is also said that da Silva created the dish for women as he wanted “the Porto women to be as hot as the French women.” True or False? I do not know. I am only repeating what someone told me. But it is true that women did not eat it in the beginning, only men – mostly, the singles - ate it. Because if a woman dared to eat it, she acquired a bad reputation. Why? Again, I do not know. But all this changed soon and everyone – men, women and children started enjoying it. With a great many variations, especially as regards the sauce, Francesinha now is the most popular food in Porto, an integral part of the city’s identity.

I had Francesinha at many places but the most memorable meal featuring this delight was at the historic Majestic Café – “….it is….the most stunning of all cafes in the nation and one of the most attractive in the world.” It was a historical double-whammy. Francesinha features in the 10 Most Famous Sandwiches in the World, and the Café Majestic is listed in the Top 10 of The Most Beautiful Cafes in the World. Founded in 1921 under the name of ‘Elite’ – later changed to ‘Majestic’ – this Belle Epoque Café is a picturesque cultural bridge between the Past and the Present. Eating here is sheer pampering in the lap of historic luxury. Cafe Majestic as emblematic of the city of Porto as its famous Port Wine. We shall talk about the Port Wine elsewhere. For now, back to Gastronhomix in Porto.

If it is Food-and-Portugal, Bacalhau has to be there. Bacalhau is dried, salted cod fish and it is an iconic ingredient of Portuguese cuisine, with over 1,000 different recipes. Surprisingly fresh cod is not even remotely as popular and as-used as the dried-salted-kind. It is cooked for social events and is the main dish for the Christmas Feat in many parts of Portugal. I had a brilliant Bacalhau meal in Porto in a restaurant named, what else but, ‘BACLHAU’, located at Muro dos Bacalhoeiros 153- 155 Ribeira. Kindly do not leave Porto without a Bacalhau meal.

Tripas is another iconic offering of the Porto-cuisine. ‘Tripas’ – tripe, offal – is said to have its roots in the 14th century when supposedly all meat was shipped out of Porto to feed the Portuguese troops fighting in Africa. Only tripe was left for the locals. So, many recipes using tripe were developed and became popular over time. One of the most popular is ‘Tripas a Moda do Porto’ which is Porto-style tripe stew with white beans. I did try it but must confess that my vote would still go to Francesinha or Bacalhau. And, the desserts.

Ah, the Desserts! Perhaps my Top-of-the-sweet-Pops is Natas do Ceu, (Heavenly Cream) – a traditional Portuguese meringue dish with lemon, cinnamon, special kind of cookies and vanilla. Also memorable are the home-made ice creams. The current favorites include the desserts at Miss Pavlova, at Almada 13. The original Pavlova is said to have been created in honor of the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, during her tour of Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s. The increasingly popular Porto version are …”crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle, topped with goodness” desserts. ‘Just Desserts’, what?

On this trip, we have only done ‘The Someone to see bit’ in Porto. ’Somewhere to be’ and ‘Somethings to do’ bits are still left. We shall return to Porto again next month to renew our love and spend our ‘May in Portugal’.

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